A few months back, Arundhati Bhattacharya decided she wanted to understand the finer points of fintech. Having zeroed in on an authority on the subject in Bengaluru, the State Bank of India (SBI) chairman decided to land up in his office with a couple of colleagues. However, by the time the team assembled there, it was more than 30-strong, threatening to turn into a security risk for the bank. The episode was evidence of how determined Bhattacharya is about keeping her bank ahead of the curve.
It is never easy to be the chairman of SBI given the pulls and pressures of the job. But Bhattacharya has never bowed to pressure. The best instance of this was SBI’s refusal to sanction a billion-dollar loan for a mining project promoted by the Adani Group. Given Adani’s perceived proximity to the Prime Minister, it could not have been an easy decision, especially since the loan was discussed extensively in the media.
And while Bhattacharya speaks her mind, hers is a voice of reason. Former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan once said he always paid heed to her suggestions. Bhattacharya, who rarely minces her words, had once asked Rajan if lenders could price home loans lower than the base rate with a view to stimulating demand. She was, of course, hoping the RBI would allow SBI to re-launch teaser loans — a popular home loan product which was frowned upon by the regulator as being risky. While she tried hard, she didn’t get her way though on several other matters she was able to persuade the authorities to go along with her.
As someone who has run the country’s biggest bank and has a good grip on regulation, Bhattacharya would be an ideal candidate for the post of RBI governor. Despite being a career banker, her reputation remains untarnished, her integrity unquestioned. She was always courageous; she talks of how, as a student in a small town in West Bengal, she needed to travel at odd hours but was never afraid to do so. Even today, Bhattacharya doesn’t shy away from a challenge; she confronts it, and more often than not, is able to conquer.
What’s remarkable is her ability to lead a team, a team as large as that in SBI, efficiently and without being high-handed. She has successfully steered the negotiations with the bank unions, which will facilitate the merger of SBI with its associate banks. With her temperament and tenacity, Bhattacharya has proved that an MBA degree is not a prerequisite for success in the business world; indeed, the student who graduated in English Literature from Jadavpur University could probably teach the professors at IIMs a thing or two.
She joined SBI in 1977 as a probationary officer (PO) holding several key positions —audit head of the New York office and CEO of SBI Capital Markets — before moving into the corner office. Her colleagues say it is her ability to think out of the box, attention to detail and perseverance that has seen the bank through a difficult period. The creation of the bank’s stressed asset management group (SAMG), in April, 2014, for instance, has helped it cope with the stressed assets problem. Bhattacharya, herself, once said in an interview that her varied experiences at postings across the country and abroad had taught her to understand and appreciate different cultures, cuisines and ways of life, broadening her horizons.
Hers is an enviable track record, built over 40 years, the most difficult of which would have been the last three. The bank has, of course, grown and weathered the non-performing assets (NPA) storm. More important, the lender has left errant industrialists in little doubt as to who is calling the shots; a banker of lesser stature may have given in but she has stood firm, not succumbing to pressure even in tough times. Bhattacharya has ensured SBI remains a credible institution and that will be her legacy.